The Disciplined Writer

How David Sedaris approaches to writing to get a little bit better every day

Since September 5, 1977, David Sedaris has been keeping a diary (not a journal he reminds us, a diary). He has evolved from writing notes on paper place mats to writing notes in a small reporters notebook each day about the things that are remarkable to him, the details that arouse curiosity or the events that intrigue him. The following morning, he sits at his computer — this, too, has evolved over the years — and he writes his diary. He recalls all the details of the event he can and records them for later use in his essays. Thus, his diary becomes the ultimate provenance of all his essays.

Since September 1977, he has missed maybe a day or two a year in this process, aside from a time or two when he was using drugs. But even then, he managed to maintain a pretty effective writing routine. And at the end of each year, he binds all the notes and places them on his shelf.

There are, within Sedaris’ experiences, important and notable opportunities for all writers. For one thing, if you want to be prolific, or if you just want to write at all, you have to be disciplined and methodical in your approach to the work. This is not always easy, but it’s important if you want to be successful or simply experience the catharsis that comes from doing creative work.

Discipline is one of those words that gets a bad wrap because we most often hear it in its most unflattering context, as in “We had to discipline your child, Mr. Smith,” the best-known cultural context for discipline and one that I grew up with.

The other side of discipline tends feel just as ominous, as in, “The drill instructor taught them discipline.” The military context often conjures up images of olive green clad soldiers marching in perfect rows, so we tend to associate it with automatic behavior, or the development of automatons. But as any good special ops person will tell you, discipline is key to the creativity that’s required for the successful execution of a difficult mission under the worst possible circumstances.

The lesser known, but more important definition of discipline (at least to me) is, “activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training.” (Dictionary.com) This broader definition calls out the true power of discipline — that over time, it can help us to improve a skill.

When you think about it, it takes discipline to execute quality work under all conditions. There are days when we’re not feeling our best, and it’s our discipline that gets us through it.

Discipline is foremost a mental component. It is a mindset that allows you to focus even if the world is exploding around you. Fortunately, for most of us, especially artist-types, we don’t have to contend with the explosions, although life can sometimes feel as if it will explode at any moment. But each of us can benefit from developing a level of discipline that helps us act when the time comes to create. Creating positive routines and habits are a great place to start. Once we set the routine, strict adherence ensures that each day is another growth opportunity.

For Sedaris, this all starts with his diary, which is part of his daily routine.

Sitting at his desk, or if he’s on the road, sitting at a desk in his hotel room, admittedly, “…It’s not lost on me that I’m so busy recording life that I don’t have time to live it.”

He goes on to explain the gravity of the situation, “Were I to leave the hotel without writing in my diary, though, I’d feel too antsy and incomplete to enjoy myself. Even if what I’m recording is of no consequence, I’ve got to put it down on paper.”

Sedaris long ago developed a useful routine that allowed him to create great work, and through rigorous discipline, it has become so entrenched in his being that he cannot enjoy the rest of his day if he doesn’t first write. While much of what goes into his diary ends up in his later essays, there are a lot of words that don’t make it. And even if it doesn’t make it into an essay, it all ends up in a book, every word important enough to Sedaris to be bound and neatly placed on a bookshelf.

Not every sentence can be an amazing string of pearls. But the day in, day out effort of attempting to create a string of pearls will yield greater results over the long run. For Sedaris, hisdaily experience has no doubt allowed him to develop his voice, sharpen the details that he sees, and become prolific.

So, want to develop as a writer (or any art for that matter)?

Schedule a time, show up, sit down and do the work. It’s that simple.

Make writing a part of your daily routine. Make it such an important part of your day that it begins to be like breathing, something that you do naturally and effortlessly, and that you’ll sorely miss if you go without it.

Even if it is as simple as looking back at your day and recording the things that you found remarkable in as much detail as possible, or recording the events that you noticed that no one else did or recording the commonplace (often remarkable because we overlook it), any of this becomes the seeds for later work. A seed planted today will bear fruit over time. And this routine becomes the foundation for practice of your craft and is what allows your mind to relax so that you can create beautiful works of art.

As a writer, writing down your thoughts and observations every day helps develop your vision and voice. Not just what you see in the world, which is important, but the extent to which you see fine details and can develop an understanding of the world and your relationship to it through context.

One of the great challenges in developing your voice as a writer is truly understanding yourself as an individual and staying true to who that is. A daily writing habit will accelerate the discovery and ensure that you practice a little bit every day. If you’re disciplined in your approach, you can work on the days when you’re just not that into it, too. Because that’s the reality of any human endeavor — no one is into it 100% of the time.

Write a little bit every day; observe the world around you — most stories will come to you from your encounters with the world; be disciplined — writing every day helps build that artistic discipline that will ultimately move you toward mastery.

There are no simple, quick solutions. But if you work your ass off every day, you’ll continue to develop and eke forward.